Writers on Wednesday: How it’s tough to ‘break the story,’ reconciling the right and left sides of the brain, how swimming in Lake Tahoe is akin to flying, and so much more from ER physician and debut author of GIRL UNDERWATER

By Leslie Lindsay 

Recently released in paperback, GIRL UNDERWATER (August 2016, Dutton/RandomHouse) takes readers on a harrowing ‘what-if’ of an major airline crash in the Rocky Mountains. Author Claire Kells writes with viscerally deep hand, and there’s good reason: she’s also a practicing physician. It’s at once a story of survival, but also the after-effects, how one can ‘pick-up’ where she left off, making sense of what happened in order emerge a better person. girl-underwater_tp-cover

 The novel follows Avery, a competitive college swimmer, who boards a red-eye flight from the West coast to East, along with two team members and two hundred strangers. When the plane goes down over the Rockies, only Avery, three little boys, and her teammate Colin Shea—whom she has been avoiding since her first day of freshman year—survive.

For five days, Avery fights the sub-zero weather, the unforgiving landscape, and creates a make-shift shelter, forages for food, protects those boys and waits for rescue. When that rescue comes, it’s just the beginning. GIRL UNDERWATER looks at what life is like after survival, and how one can come to terms with the blows.

Join me as we welcome Claire Kells to the blog couch.

Leslie Lindsay: Claire, thanks so much for taking the time to pop by. I understand there are a lot of truths in GIRL UNDERWATER for you—you’re also a seasoned swimmer, and while in the story it’s the father who is an ER doc, you, too are also a physician. But the story is not a memoir, or is it?

Claire Kells: Thank you for having me, Leslie! GIRL UNDERWATER is indeed a very personal story, and much of it was inspired by my own experiences, but no, it is not a memoir. I have never successfully woken up before dawn to swim, for instance. I’ve set alarms. I’ve tried packing all my things the night before. I even added it to my list of “life goals.” Nope.

L.L.: I really had to keep reminding myself (and flipping to the back jacket) that this was your fictionalized account—a deep-seated fear, really—of what might happen if your plane went down while you were on [medical] residency interviews. Can you talk about that process a bit? The one of interviewing for residencies. I can imagine it’s sort of a disaster in itself! And where are you practicing now?

Claire Kells: Interviewing for residency is a pretty miserable experience for a nervous flyer! I remember I once had four interviews in one week—in Vermont, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia—and the travel really took its toll on me. I always seem to get sick on planes (doesn’t everyone?), and after that whirlwind tour, I had bronchitis for a month and swore GGBridge_Old_Coast_Guard_Station.jpgnever to fly that much again. I endured it, though, because you really have no choice when it comes to residency applications. These programs want to get to know you beyond your resume, which is important, really, because in most medical specialties (mine included), you spend a lot of time interacting with people in difficult situations. I enjoyed the actual interviews; in some ways, I felt like it was my time to shine.

Right now I’m in my last year of residency in San Francisco.

L.L.: Like you, I’ve always wanted to be a writer but I’ve also been very fascinated with medicine; I was a child/adolescent psych R.N. for several years. Some will say you’re either right-brained, or left-brained, meaning art and science are two very distinct disciplines, but I always felt as if I can meld the two. Can you speak to that, please?

Claire Kells: I’ve always been fascinated by the way people think, and like you, I’ve come to right-brain-left-brainunderstand that while most people are left- or right-brained, exciting things happen when we learn to access the other side. When I first started writing in medical school, [writing] became for me a necessary creative outlet from the exams and memorization; now, nearing the end of my training, I’ve found ways to incorporate my artistic side into medical practice. It’s been very satisfying to find that niche, although it took years to get there. I’m also constantly surprised by the number of writers in medicine! I shouldn’t be, though, because medicine is very much narrative-based. Every patient comes into clinic with a story.

L.L.: I’m curious about structure these days, because there are myriad ways a story could go—and be told. In the case of GIRL UNDERWATER, you chose a dual-narrative approach in which readers flip-flop between Avery’s survival in the Rockies and her ‘present-day’ story of surviving post –survival. How did you come to this decision? What advice would you give to writers when they are trying to structure their own story?

Claire Kells: I will be completely honest with you here and admit that I wrote the story in the traditional three-act format, and my agent, Stefanie Lieberman, suggested the alternating timeline structure. I’m not sure I had the confidence early on to plot and execute a novel with an unconventional narrative structure. When Stefanie proposed it, I understood right away how it could work. I would encourage writers to keep an open mind, especially during early drafts. It often takes me many drafts before I really “break” the story. I’ve learned to be patient and trust the process.

L.L.: There’s a huge component to GIRL UNDERWATER that focuses on the psychological toll survivors feel following a major life experience. Can you talk a bit about your PTSD research and how that was integrated into the narrative?

Claire Kells: Every October, Fleet Week comes to San Francisco. I remember rotating in the psychiatric unit at the SF Veteran’s hospital that week during my third year of medical school and thinking how fortunate I was because the hospital is situated on the cliffs overlooking the Golden Gate bridge. We had a perfect view of the fighter planes, etc. As I was leaving work that Friday, though, one of the attending psychiatrists looked frazzled. “Gonna be a long weekend,” she said. “Fleet week is the worst time of year for these vets.”

And then I understood: Fleet Week was a nightmare for military veterans with PTSD (and there were many veterans in that psych unit with PTSD). I would say that that experience really spurred my interest in the subject and inspired me to incorporate it into Avery’s story. I was fortunate in that much of my research was based on my experiences with the patients and providers at the VA.

L.L.: For you, being a swimmer, this story is organic. For me as a reader, I was suffocating with any suggestion that I get into that frigid water and swim to safety. Water terrifies me; yet it can be symbolic of new life, amniotic fluid; still it’s unpredictable, there’s a certain loss of control…can you speak to that, please?

Claire Kells: My mom never learned to swim. I know she had those same fears you mentioned, and she told me later that was partly why she signed me up for swim lessons as soon as the YMCA would take me. I don’t remember those first few days in the water, but I’ve watched young children learn to swim. They fear the water, too, until suddenly, astonishingly, they learn to trust themselves. I’ve seen that moment and honestly, it gives me chills. It’s such a beautiful kind of transformation that takes place. Because you’re right, swimming in deep water requires the ultimate concession of control. I swam across Lake Tahoe this summer as part of a relay, and that lake is over 1,600 feet deep! But what an incredible download-21experience it was, swimming in a body of water like that. The water is so blue, you feel like you’re flying.

L.L.: What’s obsessing you these days? What has your attention?

Claire Kells: I’m definitely obsessed with story. As part of our residency requirements, we spend a lot of time reading textbooks, so during my free time I try to consume story other ways. Lately it’s been television. Wow—there are so many exceptional shows out there right now! The Night Of, The Americans, Stranger Things, and Game of Thrones are the shows I’ve followed this year. I’m absolutely in awe of these writers.

L.L.: Are you writing other books? Can you share?

Claire Kells: I’m working on another book now, but that’s all I can say. Sorry to be cagey about it!

L.L.: Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have? 

Claire Kells: These were all such thoughtful, interesting questions. I also want to thank you and your readers for taking a chance on a debut author—you’re the reason we keep writing. So thank you.

“Skillfully interspersing flashbacks with current events, debut novelist Kells has written an absorbing tale that will grip anyone who enjoys survival stories or psychological dramas.”

– Library Journal (starred review)

L.L.: Claire, it’s been a pleasure to connect. Best wishes with this and future books!

Claire Kells: I really enjoyed being here! Thank you again.

For more information on GIRL UNDERWATER, or to connect with Claire Kells, please see:


226567_kells_claireABOUT THE AUTHOR: Claire Kells was born and raised outside Philadelphia. She received a degree in English from Princeton University and a medical degree from the University of California. Currently in residency, she lives and works in the Bay Area. This is her first novel.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, through these social media channels. But not water.


Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter

Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1

Email: leslie_lindsay@hotmail.com



[Special thanks to B. Odell at Dutton Books. Author and cover image courtesy of Dutton/Penguin/Random House. Images of Lake Tahoe and The Golden Gate Bridge retrieved from Wikipedia on 10.24.16. Right-brain/left-brain image retrieved from on 10.24.16]

WeekEND Reading: Debut author Bryn Greenwood talks about being a stubborn flat-lander, reading (and writing) about uncomfortable things, what ALL THE UGLY & WONDERFUL THINGS taught her about herself, and how’s it’s totally NOT autobiographical.

By Leslie Lindsay 

ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS is as raw as it is compassionate. A writer I know sometimes says, “I was brave on the page today,” and that’s exactly what I think of Wavonna (Wavy), the main character in this title, as well as the debut author Bryn Greenwood. She was brave on the page and there’s truth to it right here–she’s the all-the-ugly-and-wonderful-thingsdaughter of a (mostly reformed) drug dealer just like Wavy, and she has a habit of falling in love with much older men, and perhaps she also not just brave on the page, but “writes what she knows.”

This is a brave, insightful read from a very talented new writer and I thoroughly enjoyed the language and rhythm to the prose, however, I will say that this is not a book for everyone. It’s a bit like LOLITA meets…I’m not sure. Be prepared for some rawness and uncomfortable things going on in ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS.

We first meet Wavy (short for Wavonna) when she is just 5 years old. She’s got a creepy-goofy mom whom she’s often scared of, especially when mom’s high. Her dad’s no better. Wavy keeps her mouth shut and stays out of sight. Selectively mute, she eats in secret, and finds many others hard to trust. That is until she meets Kellen (Also known as Jesse Joe Barfoot). Kellen is much older than Wavy (who is now 8 years old), yet they are in love. Or perhaps it’s more brotherly at first, him protecting her while she’s a vulnerable child and her parents are too strung out to parent. But then a love definitely develops.

Tragedy rips the family apart and well-meaning aunt steps in. There’s foster care, drugs, jail time, death/murder/suicide and so much more in this gorgeously told literary suspense ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS.

So, grab your cup of coffee and join me as we get to know Bryn Greenwood.

Leslie Lindsay: Oh goodness, I just finished ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS and I have to say, the title is quite fitting. Are you one of those writers who can’t set pen to paper before knowing a title, or does it develop organically?

Bryn Greenwood: It’s important for me to have a working title that resonates with me, but always with the awareness that it probably won’t end up being the title the book is published under. The working title for ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS was rather unimpressively THIRTEEN, in reference to Wavy’s age when her life changes dramatically. It’s a good thing I don’t get too attached to my working titles, as this book actually went through three title changes on its road to publication. The line referencing “all the ugly and wonderful things” existed from the first draft, however, so it was fitting that it ended up being the title.

L.L.: So…”writing what you know,” I have to say, I also love memoir and as I’m reading, there’s so much truth and raw honesty with your characters and the situations they get themselves into, yet ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS is not a memoir. Can you discuss your understanding of the difference between “writing what you know” and a full-fledged memoir?

Bryn Greenwood: Writing a memoir would require me to take careful stock of a lot of memories, and do a lot of research to fact check the events of my life. It would also require me to decide how many people I’m willing to be estranged from. Writing what I know, however, allows me to pick and choose from the things I remember vividly and fill in the blanks with people and events of my own imagination. Still, I feel that fiction calls upon the same level of introspection and emotional honesty as memoir. In terms of ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS, is some of it true? Yes. My father was a drug dealer, and I’ve done and seen some pretty crazy things as a result. Do some of the characters resemble people I knew? Without a doubt. At the age of thirteen I started an intense love affair with a man more than twice my age. He and I are both in these pages in some very filtered form. Does it approach autobiography? Absolutely not.

L.L.: Many folks are comparing ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS to LOLITA. Talk about a narrative with lots of uncomfortable situations! How do you respond to those comparisons?220px-lolita_1955

Bryn Greenwood: I’m a big fan of Nabokov, and I think LOLITA is an incredible novel, perhaps even one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. Breaking it down to its bare bones, though, it doesn’t have anything in common with ALL THE UGLY AND
WONDERFUL THINGS. Humbert Humbert is a sexual predator who marries a single mother and, following her convenient death, kidnaps her daughter for what I can only describe as a cross-country pedophilic rape-fest. As a first person narration, we have only Humbert’s perspective on his relationship with Lolita, and I don’t trust him. ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS has none of those plot elements, and the characters involved are quite different, as is the dynamic of their relationship. Yes, there’s an increasingly uncomfortable and inappropriate relationship between a young girl, Wavy, and Kellen, a man thirteen years her senior, but I do not consider Kellen a predator or a pedophile. Also it is my hope that the multiple narrative angles allow readers to see a much more balanced view of their relationship and come to their own conclusions.

“Greenwood’s powerful, provocative debut chronicles a desolate childhood and a discomfiting love affair… It’s no storybook romance, but the novel closes on a note of hard-won serenity, with people who deserve a second chance gathered together….Intelligent, honest, and unsentimental.”

~Kirkus Reviews (STARRED)

L.L.: What did you learn about yourself writing ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS?

Bryn Greenwood: I learned that there are things I thought I’d let go of that still have their hooks in me. This was simultaneously a happy and a sad lesson, because some of the things that still have a hold on me are full of sorrow, while others are full of joy. Accessing some of those memories allowed me to release a lot of the shame that other people had pressed upon me. As a society, we have a few set narratives about certain things, like the way “inappropriate” relationships between young people and older people are viewed and discussed. The approved narrative is that the younger person is a victim. If you have an experience that doesn’t fit, or if you decline to identify with being a victim, people will try to shame you. If you won’t be a victim, then there must be something wrong with you seems to be the message. Writing this book, I was able to shrug off that shame for something more constructive.

I also learned that I’m more stubborn than I knew I was, and I thought I was pretty stubborn. I received a lot of rejections on this book, but at no point did I consider giving up.

L.L.: There are so many things going on in this story, but it’s all handled well. In some ways, it feels like a mystery/thriller and in other regards, it feels a bit like…well, a coming of age romance, though I cringe to liken it to romance, because it’s not really that. Plus, the writing is very lyrical, polished, and emotionally resonate. Perhaps it’s literary fiction. What genre do you feel ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS is? And in the end, does genre matter?

Bryn Greenwood: I think of it primarily as literary/mainstream fiction. It obviously has many hallmarks of a coming of age story–for several of the characters–but there are a lot of other elements at play within the story, as you observe. Like you, I hesitate to think of it as romance, because romance novels tend to glorify and glamorize the love stories they tell. Although ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS definitely contains a love story, it’s not particularly romantic. That said, I suspect genre only matters as much as we tell ourselves it does. I read across all genres, and I know from the contents of my inbox that readers of all kinds have connected with my book.

L.L.: What do you hope readers take away after reading ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS?

Bryn Greenwood: I hope that most readers will simply spend some time thinking about the issues that surround the characters: drug abuse, neglect, family, love, loss, food. As much as we want life to be black and white, there’s a whole lot of gray. I think we get to that understanding, and to sympathy, by acknowledging the issues that inhabit that gray area.

For readers who find that the book makes them uncomfortable, I hope they will spend a little time thinking of other readers for whom this book is a mirror. Wavy and Kellen’s lives may seem alien or repulsive, but there are people who have lived or are living these lives. Those people deserve to see their stories told with sincerity just as much as anyone else.

L.L.: I’m a bit curious about place and how that affects us as writers. Or, does it? I understand you’re a fourth generation Kansan. I’m at least a fifth generation Missourian. I’m drawn to raw, uncensored stories about family, love, and human behavior. Could just be me, but perhaps there’s some mid-America influence there. Can you share your thoughts on that?

Bryn Greenwood: Although I’ve written about other places, I feel like much of my writing is informed by my family connection to Kansas, and to the West. [See Bryn’s website to glimpse her other writing] Part of that is this sense of a massive, flat, open space, of being able to see not just the next town twenty miles away, but the actual curvature of the earth. I always feel like I’m trying to bring that breadth of vision to my writing. The other element of place that crops up in my work is this damned impenetrable stubbornness. During the Dust Bowl, when a 220px-dust-storm-texas-1935lot of people fled from Western Kansas, my family stayed, possibly out of pure bullheadedness. That bleeds through in how we feel about our relationships and our place in the world. We can be very insular, but are passionate and loyal. 

L.L.: In fact, as I’m reading ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS, I’m reminded of several other titles that are written (and set) by Missouri authors (Laura McHugh’s THE WEIGHT OF BLOOD comes to mind as does Daniel Woodrell’s WINTER’S BONE). What stories, authors, and genres influence you? What ignites your creative spark?

Bryn Greenwood: I read all different genres, because I never know where I’ll stumble across the kinds of stories and characters I love. I enjoy sci fi and fantasy, often because I feel like the same thing that lets them cross the boundaries of our reality lets them access emotions and relationships that we don’t always find in contemporary fiction. (Some of my current recommendations are Sherri L. Smith, Holly Black, and always Ursula K. LeGuin.) I’m a big believer in reading work by women, because we’ve so often been silenced. Some of my favorites are Margaret Atwood, Louise Erdrich, Alice Walker, A.S. Byatt, Iris Murdoch, and Isabelle Allende.

L.L.: I understand you used to work with Planned Parenthood. Can you tell us a bit about that? This particular experience netted you a good number of publications.

Bryn Greenwood: In the 1990s I worked at Planned Parenthood of Kansas (Now PP Great Plains) as a sex educator. As is the nature of teaching, it was hugely educational for me. I did hundreds of presentations for high school students, social services clients, inmates at juvenile and adult facilities. I saw so much of humanity and heard so many stories that I was radically changed in my understanding of the world. I can’t help but feel a lot of that experience comes through in my writing as well. In terms of what I tweeted about in the aftermath of the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shootings last year, that whole experience is a great illustration about social media. You cannot control what catches people’s attention. It turned out that a lot of people wanted to know more about what I’d experienced as a Planned Parenthood employee.

L.L.: What question should I have asked but forgot?

 Bryn Greenwood: One of my favorite things to ask other writers is what newspapers, websites, etc. they like to read on a casual basis, because I’m interested in people’s daily mental perambulations. Of course, having mentioned this, I now have to admit that I love reading trashy tabloids online. I think it’s that underneath all the celebrity gossip and Florida crime reports, I know there are real stories. I like to imagine what has really happened behind all the sordid and sensationalist nonsense. Tabloids render it all as grotesque– “Famous Athlete Arrested in Altercation at Strip Club” or “Florida Woman Shoots Husband and His Lover, Her Own Mother” –but I enjoy trying to develop narratives for the headlines that reveal actual people having actual human emotions.

L.L.: Bryn, it’s been a pleasure! Thank you so much for chatting with us today.

Bryn Greenwood: Thank you for inviting me to talk about my book and all my random obsessions. It’s been wonderful, Leslie!

For more information on ALL THE UGLY AND BEAUTIFUL THINGS, or to connect with Bryn Greenwood via social media, please see: 

bryn-greenwood-credit-jennifer-stewart-newlinAuthor Bio: Bryn Greenwood is a fourth-generation Kansan, one of seven sisters, and the daughter of a mostly reformed drug dealer. She earned a MA in Creative Writing and continues to work in academia as an administrator. All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is her debut novel. She lives in Lawrence, Kansas, where she is married to an extensive home remodeling project, and is raising a small herd of boxers and hairless cats.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay through these various social media channels:


Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter

Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1

[Special thanks to K. Bassel at SMP. Author and cover images courtesy of SMP and used with permission. Lolita cover image retrieved from Wikipedia on 9.8.16, Dust Bowl image also retrieved from Wikipedia.] 007.JPG

Wednesdays with Writers: Laura Lippman Talks about how Memory is a Myth we Create, Being AWFUL at titles, Exploring our Childhoods, & How TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD connects to WILDE LAKE & so much more

By Leslie Lindsay 

“The truth is messy, riotous, overrunning everything. You can never know the whole truth of anything. And if you could, you would wish you didn’t.” ~From WILDE LAKE

 For twenty years, she was a journalist. She understands space and economy of words. She ‘gets’ motivation and the messiness of people. And it shows. She’s been awarded The Edgar, The Anthony, The Agatha…and so many others. All well-deserved. download (9).jpg

And then she churns out WILDE LAKE, a complex coming-of-age story set between the 1960s and present day released May 3rd by William Morrow. Baltimore native Laura Lippman delivers a tale of justice and loyalty, all of which mingle with their friends truth and memory.

Lu (Luisa) Brant, younger by eight years is fascinated by her brother, A.J., his friends and his life. She’s the pesky younger sister, but a smart, observant one. As an adult, she gets her “first murder,” thrusting her back to her younger days, when everyone lived in the planned community of Columbia, all divided into succinct villages with a certain number of homes. On high school graduation day, 1980, Davey, a quietly eccentric black friend of Lu’s brother is accused of rape by his girlfriend.

Now, thirty-five years later, as Lu prepares for trial, the events of 1980 seep into her consciousness. The past events catch up in the present-day narrative, intermittently weaving the two stories together.

WILDE LAKE is another smashing stand-alone in Lippman’s repertoire, and I’m super-honored to chat with her about her book, writing, and life.

Leslie Lindsay: Laura, such a joy to chat with you today. I’ve read about all of your stand-alones and have enjoyed every one. But WILDE LAKE, while stunningly good, is different, almost memoir-like in the storytelling. What was haunting you enough to spin this story?

Laura Lippman: It started in a very impersonal way: I was thinking a lot about what we now call “rape culture” and how my attitudes toward certain narratives had changed. For example, when the Woody Allen-Mia Farrow separation first happened, I’m sorry to say that I took a he said/she said attitude, I was very quick to buy into the idea of a “woman scorned.” But when Dylan Farrow wrote that letter for the New York Times website, affirming that she had been victimized, I began to rethink how I had seen that story. As someone wiser than I said: If you are a woman who believes her child has been assaulted, what response can you have other than rage? I then began to see how that change in perspective could shift our view of fictional stories. Years ago, I alluded to the very confusing Luke and Laura story on General Hospital, in my book I’d Know You Anywhere. So in WILDE LAKE, I took on TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Of course, in MOCKINGBIRD, Tom Robinson is innocent. That’s the point. I wouldn’t have it any other way. But that’s the 1930s. What happens if you bring the basic facts of that story into an era in which “good” people feel themselves enlightened on the topics of race, sex and class?

And then my dad died while I was in the middle of writing it, and that changed everything.

L.L.: You have just an uncanny ability to get inside the heads of your characters in such a way that it feels like you *are* them, or know them intimately. Can you talk a bit about character for a minute? Do they sort of ‘reveal’ themselves to you, or are they the result of careful construction?

Laura Lippman: I acted in high school and, amateur as I was, it did teach me a lot about thinking about things from someone else’s POV. And I was a kid who liked to play pretend — I’m a unicorn! I’m an otter! My Barbie doll games were elaborate soap operas and my dolls were always the “poor” ones because, unlike my perfect sister, I was forever losing those tiny little shoes. So I create the characters and I follow the blueprint of my creations. I will never force a character to do something for the sake of plot.

 L.L.: The novel meanders between time periods, but all are told from the POV of Lu (Luisa) Brant, the county’s first female* (and newly elected) state’s attorney in Howard County, Maryland. Symmetry isn’t far behind; her father once held this position when Lu was younger. What is it, in your opinion that often brings the past to light? Is this a conscious decision on the part of the author to draw those parallels, and do they typically happen in “real life,” too? [*the first actual Howard County state’s attorney was actually someone else and used creatively within WILDE LAKE.]

Laura Lippman: Early in my adult life, I noticed that I could store facts that made no sense, waiting for the day that they would have context. Here’s a story I’ve never told anyone: I was dating a guy, a bit of a bastard, and there was an impromptu social gathering at his house, where one woman struck me as strangely chummy with my boyfriend. She mentioned where she lived — the block, not the exact address. Several weeks later, I couldn’t find my boyfriend one evening. We both worked night shifts at the newspaper and he was supposed to call me when he got off at midnight. I got in my car and drove to that block, saw his car there. That tiny, inconsequential fact had waited for me. This still happens to me. I have a poor memory, but my mind seems very intuitive when it comes to knowing what information I should have later.

L.L.: WILDE LAKE is not a crime/thriller/mystery in the traditional sense, but more of a literary read with the crime sort of shoved to the back. Oh, but it’s very present. WILDE LAKE mostly about truth, justice, loyalty and the tricky effects memory has on our mind. In fact, I love how you braid those concepts together, particularly memory. Can you speak to that, please?

Laura Lippman: This is controversial, but I don’t believe in anyone’s memory, including my own. And I think it’s strange to argue over memory. I’m a huge fan of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, the 3-part musical that Joss Whedon made. Do you know it? Dr. Horrible’s nemesis is Captain Hammer, a superhero who almost kills someone and is then credited with her rescue. When Dr. Horrible points out this inconvenient fact, Captain Hammer says simply: I remember it differently. Isn’t that the truth behind every disagreement that centers on memory? And who gets to referee? I think we need to recognize memories are the essential myths we have created for ourselves.

L.L.: I have to say, I was absolutely fascinated with Lu and AJ’s mother. She really doesn’t make an appearance in WILDE LAKE, but she’s there, lurking in unanswered questions. Without giving too much away, how did you conceive this piece of the narrative?

Laura Lippman: Think about who’s missing in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Then think about the real-life story of Harper Lee’s mother, if you know it. I can’t say more. I might have already said too much!

L.L.: Lately, I’ve been interested in titles. Do you start working with one in mind? Do they echo throughout your work-in-progress? Or maybe they appear at the end of draft one? And what factors work to their overall success?

Laura Lippman: I am AWFUL at titles. They are inevitably the last thing I write and I need lots of help. WILDE LAKE was my editor’s title, I think. My editor or my publisher. But once it was suggested, I saw how perfect it was. Wilde Lake is man-made, which promotes the dangerous illusion that it can be controlled. But it has all the risks inherent in any body of water. The book begins and ends by its shores.

L.L.: What’s inspiring you now? What has your attention?

Laura Lippman: Without being aware of it, I’ve moved into a phase where my work is more influenced by other books than real-life stories. Right now, I’m doing something that can only be described as a mash-up of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE and Anne Tyler’s LADDER OF YEARS. And it even has a title: PINK LADY. Which, by the way, was suggested by my editor after she read the first 40 pages.

L.L.: What should I have asked, but may have forgotten?

Laura Lippman: Not a thing. You’ve made me feel very smart. Thank you!

L.L.: Laura, it’s been a pleasure chatting. Thanks for popping over.

Laura Lippman: It was a pleasure.

download (8)Author Bio: Laura Lippman was a reporter for twenty years, including twelve years at The (Baltimore) Sun. She began writing novels while working full-time and published seven books about “accidental PI” Tess Monaghan before leaving daily journalism in 2001.

Her work has been awarded the Edgar ®, the Anthony, the Agatha, the Shamus, the Nero Wolfe, Gumshoe and Barry awards.

She also has been nominated for other prizes in the crime fiction field, including the Hammett and the Macavity. She was the first-ever recipient of the Mayor’s Prize for Literary Excellence and the first genre writer recognized as Author of the Year by the Maryland Library Association. Ms. Lippman grew up in Baltimore and attended city schools through ninth grade.

After graduating from Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, Md., Ms. Lippman attended Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Her other newspaper jobs included the Waco Tribune-Herald and the San Antonio Light.

Ms. Lippman returned to Baltimore in 1989 and has lived there since. She is the daughter of the late Theo Lippman Jr., a Sun editorial writer who retired in 1995, and Madeline Mabry Lippman, a former Baltimore City school librarian. Her sister, Susan, is a local bookseller. [Special thanks to E. Homonoff at WilliamMorrow. Author and cover images retrieved 7.18.16 from the author’s website] 

Wednesdays with Writers: Ultimately a story of hope, debut author and voracious reader J.L. Callison talks about pantsing, flunking college composition,survivalist skills, & more in ROMSON’S LODGE

By Leslie Lindsay

A quick read, STRANDED AT ROMSON’S LODGE (Morgan James, May 2016) is the debut of J.L. Callison, a mature author with an inspirational message of love, hope, and redemption.  stranded_Cover_web

Kidnapped and flown to a remote lodge in upstate Maine, high school seniors, Jed Romson and Elizabeth Sitton are stranded when their kidnapper crashes on takeoff. What then becomes a tale of who and why, Jed and Lizzie embark on a survivalist adventure reminiscent of Jean Craighead George’s tales for young adults, JULIE OF THE WOLVES and THE FAR SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN.

Callison’s chapters are short and crisp and he ought to be applauded for his brevity, break-neck pacing, and element of suspense. At the heart of this Christian inspirational tale is a quaint, wholesome romance. STRANDED AT ROMSON’S LODGE will appeal to idealistic  young readers with an adventuresome spirit.

Today, I am honored to welcome J.L. Callison to the blog!

Leslie Lindsay : Like every other writer, you’re a voracious reader. And then, the writing bug hit. You mentioned that you had several ‘throw-away’ short stories and the start of a novel that just didn’t go anywhere. How was ROMSON’S LODGE different?

J.L. Callison: For years the concept of Stranded at Romson’s Lodge bounced around in my mind. The “coming of age” movies and books of the early 80’s triggered the questions in my head of “What if two Christian teens were placed in such a situation? How would they handle it?”

I didn’t want to write a “Christian” book, but as a Christian, my values will show through. What I wanted to do with this story was demonstrate Christianity from a realistic standpoint rather than try to “preach.” Perhaps that is why the story wouldn’t leave my mind. I started the story and threw it away more times than I have any idea, but I couldn’t throw away the idea.

L.L.: We talked before about you ‘not knowing what you were doing’ when you set out to write ROMSON’S LODGE, that it was all kind of a fluke; you went to a writing conference and pitched your idea to an agent and…well, the rest is history. Can you talk about that, please?

J.L. Callison: Believe it or not, I flunked English Composition in college, and I thought I couldn’t write, so I never tried. It was not until well after I started writing Stranded at Romson’s Lodge that I understood that my failure was because of the style of writing they tried to make me do. I’m very much a seat-of-the pants type of writer, and I did not do well with outlining, note cards, and the formulized style they wanted.

After I had written Stranded, I knew that if I was going to do anything with the book, I needed some help, so I attended the Indiana Faith and Writing Conference in Anderson Indiana, looking for advice and some teaching. I didn’t know we each got a 15 minute interview with someone in the writing/publishing industry. When the young lady at registration asked me who I wanted, I had no clue. She suggested Terry Whalin because he is an excellent teacher, and he has been in the industry for many years on both the writing side and as a publisher. Terry is now an acquisitions editor for Morgan James Publishing.

logline1I sat down with Terry and told him I had no clue what I was doing and that I needed advice on how the system worked. He was very helpful, and when my fifteen minutes was up and the next guy didn’t show, he asked if I had written anything. I said yes, and then began to tell him about the story. I was so green I didn’t even know I was supposed to have a 30 second “elevator speech.” I rambled for about five minutes. He said Stranded was different than anything they had seen in a number of years and that it might fit with what Morgan James was doing. Would I send him the manuscript?

I had no idea I would sell the manuscript that day. It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time, and I give God the credit for putting me there.

I still don’t claim to know what I’m doing! I just tell a story.

L.L.: And what kind of writer would you say you are? Do you carefully plot and outline, or are you more organic, going where the characters take you?

J.L. Callison: As I mentioned earlier, I’m very much organic! I start off with an idea for the beginning and the ending, plan for a couple of waypoints in between, and then I let my characters tell me what happens. I guess the difference between me and someone being treated by a psychiatrist is that when I hear voices in my head, I write down what they say.

L.L.: I was particularly impressed with the survivalist skills you gave Jed. Was this something that grew from you as the author, some life experience, or were his skills merely a result of careful research?

J.L. Callison: Some of the skills are things I learned hunting and fishing as a kid. Other skills, I have learned from close friends who are military veterans, and the rest of it was gleaned from careful research. I like to think if I was stranded in such a situation I would survive, but I know I would not do as well as Jed and Lizzie did!

L.L.: STRANDED AT ROMSON’S LODGE is told in short, crisp, alternating chapters in which we see the grieving families and their tireless search for Jed and Lizzie, and then we “join” Jed and Lizzie at the Maine lodge. Was there a storyline you were more eager to get back to, one you felt a particular affinity for?

J.L. Callison: Obviously, Jed and Lizzie are my protagonists, and I identified with them closely, but as I got further into the story, Charles began to play a bigger role than originally intended. Of all of my characters, I think he is the one I developed the most respect for, for his integrity and the character that he displays. If I decide to do a sequel to the story about a return to Romson’s Lodge, he and Jimmy will play major roles.

L.L.: And so, you’re from the Midwest. How did you decide to set the story in Maine? 

J.L. Callison: I played around with the idea for a long time with a number of scenarios for their marooning. It was not until I drove through Maine going to the Maritimes that the location became plain to me. Maine_population_map

Maine is a beautiful state, but other than along the coast and along its northern border, much of it is extremely remote. Just how remote became apparent when I started researching the state. Just a little over half of the landmass of Maine has no local government because there aren’t enough people in the territory to form local government. They call these areas, “Unorganized Territory.” It is in such an area that Jed and Lizzie find themselves.

In the story, Jed says there is less than one person per hundred square miles, but in the area I set the story, it is less than one third of a person per hundred square miles. It is the most remote area in the lower 48 states.

L.L.: And it’s also the summer of 1985. We get a glimpse into that world, the Baby Boom parents, the coming of age in Reagan’s era, and the remnants of the Vietnam war. Can you speak to your decision to set the story in 1985 versus present-day?

J.L. Callison: Simplicity was the biggest reason for the time of the setting, a time before computers, cell phones, and other electronics that would detract from the story concept. The same story could easily be told in the present day, but it would add a whole layer of complexity that I didn’t want to bother with. In the modern day, Romson’s Lodge would still be without any form of electronics, unless they had solar panels or a wind turbine or something to power satellite communication, but then Pete would have destroyed them, too. I just thought it was easier to keep it simple.

L.L.: What do you hope readers take away from ROMSON’S LODGE?

J.L. Callison: In a word, hope. There are a couple of areas in particular. I wanted to get across the idea that no matter what the situation, there is hope. Even if you are stranded in a remote area, there are ways to survive if you don’t panic. Just stop and think .

Secondly, I wanted to demonstrate the idea of moral options. Unlike in most media where no options for living one’s values are shown—if a guy and a girl like each other, the next step is for them to sleep together—my hope was to demonstrate that one always has a choice and the option to live differently than the “norm,” and that not everybody is “doing it.”

L.L.: What’s next for you? Are you working on another book?

J.L. Callison: My second novel, a middle-grade mystery called Davy Faraday and the Secret of the Spiral Staircase, is under consideration by a publisher that is very interested in its concept.625.151109

In the story, Davy’s family inherits an old Victorian mansion that has a nearly hundred-year-old mystery. I plan to make this into a trilogy or possibly even four books.

I also have a novella, Rotund Roland, that I may self-publish in the near future. It has to do with bullying. I also am toying with another story idea.

L.L.: What’s obsessing you now and why?

J.L. Callison: I’m working on the Davy Faraday series.

L.L.: What question should I have asked but may have forgotten?

J.L. Callison: I can’t think of a thing.

L.L.: It was such a pleasure chatting with you today! I wish you the best of luck with ROMSON’S LODGE.

J.L. Callison: The pleasure was indeed mine! Thank you so much.

For more information, or to purchase ROMSON’S LODGE, please visit:

Author PicAbout the Author: J.L. Callison was an early reader, whose third-grade teacher encouraged his love of reading. He read over 300 books that year, and was reading on an eighth grade level by years end. He developed a wide range of reading interests, including volumes A-H of the World Book Encyclopedia! He loves to collect books, and has well over a thousand in his library, most of which he has read at least once. Young adult is his favorite genre, for as he says, he refuses to grow up. He studied for the ministry, and has served in lay capacities for much of his adult life in prison and rescue ministies, but always with a youth ministry focus. He has been, along with his wife, a junior-high youth sponsor and teacher for most of the last twenty-five years. He and his wife of 38 years live in Illinois. They have five grown children and are blessed with four grandchildren with another on the way very soon.

[Cover and author images courtesy of J.L. Callison. Maine population density map retrieved from Wikipedia on 6.20.16. Spiral staircase diorama retrieved from on 6.20.16, logline infographic retrieved from. For all of my reviews, follow me on GoodReads]

Write On, Wednesday: Eric Lotke Author of MAKING MANNA talks about how moods affect scenes, writing from different POVs, the justice system, & how he doesn’t have literary favorites (exactly)

By Leslie Lindsay

Here’s a story that will have you alternatively feeling hopeful and disgusted, wrought with inner angst, and pulling at your skin to help escape the torturous injustice of the penal system.  You’ll fall in the love with the searing honesty, the glittering prose, and the characters themselves. They might remind you a bit of someone you know…maybe even  yourself.MakingManna1600CVR

MAKING MANNA (2015, Brandyland Books) reads like it could be a memoir, but it’s fiction. But like all good fiction, it’s tied together with a few strands of the truth. Click here to read an excerpt.

Today, I am honored to have Eric Lotke chat about his book, MAKING MANNA. Highly recommended you read the last third in a bakery, or at least have some freshly baked bread nearby.

Leslie Lindsay: I am always fascinated by what brings a writer to the page. There has to be something that is intriguing to you, keeping you awake at night to spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about, writing, and well…the whole process of getting a book into the world. What inspired you to write MAKING MANNA?

Eric Lotke: Trigger warning. This story has a really bad beginning. Twenty years ago I was working on a death penalty case. The young man on death row was the product of an incestuous rape. I wrote those words in his social history — “product of an incestuous rape.” The phrase was so distasteful that I horrified even myself. The case came and went but those words stuck with me.

Years later, I wanted to write something hopeful and uplifting. The world is a mess. I wanted to say something nice.

So I went back to that kid. I started there but gave him a different ending. I took the worst beginning I could imagine and turned it into something positive.

 L.L.: We all have a process to this madness we call ‘writing.’ What was your particular process in terms of outlining, plot and character in MAKING MANNA?

Eric Lotke: I had a beginning in mind, from that death penalty case. And I had an end in mind. But I wasn’t sure how to get there.

I found that I could always and only see a few chapters in advance. So I would tell the story that far, then taking that as the baseline, outline what happens next – with the endpoint in mind. The characters and internal details developed as they went.

making-yeast-breadL.L.: I like to write in my cozy little office with classical music playing and a puppy curled near my feet. But I’ve also been known to have marathon writing sessions at my local Starbucks. Where is your favorite place to write?

Eric Lotke: I am opportunistic in time and space. I work full time and I have two kids. I drive them to practices, lessons and activities – and have an hour or two to write while I wait. When I was lucky, I’d have a whole half-day at home on a weekend. It mattered that I wasn’t on deadline. If I needed time to figure something out or went a month without a free minute, that was okay. I always keep a notebook handy. My creativity is better than my memory.

L.L.: Writing can be such an exhilarating–and yet exhausting–process. What was your favorite part about writing the book?

Eric Lotke: This was really interesting. When I wrote a scene that was happy and light, I was in a better mood at bedtime. When I wrote a scene that was dark or dreary, I wasn’t as joyful in real life. Putting myself into the mood to create the scene expanded beyond the page.

I suppose it went the other way, too. One weekend I had a lot of time to write and I was looking forward writing the scene that came next. I expected it to be happy and triumphant. As it turned out, I was a little blue that weekend. Maybe I had a cold, something was wrong at work or the kids were annoying. Whatever. I don’t recall. But I remember being a little down as I started … and it is quite clear that this fundamentally happy scene has a melancholy undertow. I always wonder if that undertow was inherent in the material and it would have been there anyway, or if it reflects my temper over the weekend.

In any case, I quite like the complexity and I never sought to iron it out.

L.L.: As writers we have so many choices…that’s part of why I find the process liberating–and yet rife with angst. How did you decide to write from the perspective of Libby rather than her son, Angel?

Eric Lotke: The book begins from Libby’ point of view. Angel is a baby. Yes, he’s occasionally cute, but he’s more of a prop than a character. Mostly he’s a logistical problem that needs diapers and daycare. Starting in Part Two the story moves to Angel’s point of view, and it ages with him from kindergarten to high school. In the end the two points of view come together. Now they’re equals.

One smart reader described it as a “coming of age” story of both the mother and son at the same time. I think that’s exactly right. Libby was so young when he was born! She has so much to figure out, and so does he. I think changing the point of view helps bring that development to life.

L.L.: Libby comes from a tough background but manages to work hard and support her family. How accurate do you think her life is compared to a real-life girl in her situation? What research did you do to keep the novel grounded?

All of her problems are real. She has a bad boss and not enough money, and she’s (justifiably) afraid of the police. She solves her problems in ways that are always credible and based on real world experience. I readily admit, however, that her success is unlikely.  Does one in five people like her succeed? One in twenty? A hundred? I want to show the hopeful possibility – while also making it clear that life is hard and the odds are against her.

Good luck makes a difference, too. Libby meets Sheila at the outset, and her health stays good. She gives the good luck back, though, doing favors for others. I think it’s honest to show that luck makes a difference. That’s not a novelist’s trick.

L.L.: Sheila and her husband have a bad experience with the prison system. Does this aspect of the plot come from your experience as a lawyer?

Eric Lotke: Absolutely. That’s the heart of the story. Typical fiction shows us courtroom dramas with cutting cross examinations and explosive closing arguments. My personal experience brings you people with really bad lawyers who accept really bad plea bargains. Justice on TV is about crime labs and DNA exonerations. The real justice system is about kids who miss their parents in prison, and cops who book you so they can bill overtime on your court date.

“Eric Lotke is a beautiful writer and he has written a beautiful book. Making Manna is a wonderful story of family, redemption, and love that takes the reader from the prison to the school yard in a touching human way that we rarely experience.”
— Heather Ann Thompson, author of Whose Detroit?

L.L.: How else did your career influence the book?

Eric Lotke: Can you tell that I once earned my living as a chef? More importantly, my life as a parent influenced the book. It would have been a different book if I weren’t a dad.

L.L.: Libby talks about one day getting her GED and maybe even going to college. What would be her major in college?

Eric Lotke: Heavens! I don’t know. I’d have to put her in college, have her meet some people, take some classes and live some college experiences … then she’d be in a position to decide.

During the story, a supporting character decides to go to college. As an author I was struggling to decide what college she should go to. So instead of thinking, I worked it out as a story.

First, I knew she was on a tight budget and could only afford a small number of application fees. Second, the logic of her situation defined her choices, for example, her state school. Third, her profile as a candidate determined which schools would admit her and under what terms. In the end she made a choice that followed naturally from the options available.

The point is that instead of deciding where she should go to school from a big fat Barron’s book, I just followed the situation to its conclusion. It feels real because it is.

L.L.: What do you hope readers will take away from Making Manna?

Eric Lotke: First, I want readers to have a good time. Escapism is okay. You deserve a break today. You bought my book: I owe you a good time.

But I also want readers to reflect on the understory and worry about the injustice, especially in the justice system. The obvious problem is bad cops and excessive prison terms. The subtler problem is that people who need protection don’t get it, and people who’ve been hurt don’t get help. That’s a different failing of our justice system. I explore those failings and show a different way out.

L.L.: In some of my “homework,” I read other reviews of MAKING MANNA. Many comments indicated that they’d like to know what happened to the characters. Do you plan to write a sequel?

Eric Lotke: I hadn’t planned to, but people have asked and now I’m tempted. A plot is starting to take shape. I have another book in mind, too. It depends, of course, on how this book is received.

L.L.: Okay…and now for some of the ‘easier’ questions. Who is your favorite author? Favorite book?Ideal Bookshelf 651: Coming of Age

Eric Lotke: I don’t really have favorites. My tastes are diverse and changing. I enjoy biographies by Doris Kearns Goodwin and political science by Jacob Hacker.

The best novel I read lately was The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich. It’s copyright 2002 but the setting is America post WWI and the characters are timeless. Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward was a highlight of 2015 and I expect it to last a while. It’s the memoir of an African American woman in low-income America. All of the men important in her life disappear over a couple of years — shot, drugged, suicide or jailed. But somehow the police who happily patrol the neighborhood every night with searchlights can’t manage even to arrest the drunk white driver who kills her brother.

I’ve also been delighted to re-read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. The first time was on my daughter’s recommendation. The second time was voluntary after seeing the movie.

 L.L.: What book are you reading now?

Eric Lotke: I just started Viral by Emily Mitchell. It’s a collection of short stories and I’ve only read a few so I don’t have an opinion yet. But it came highly recommended and the first story is terrific. It’s about a small business where the staff are measured, marked, ranked and made miserable because they aren’t smiling enough.

L.L.: Eric, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us about MAKING MANNA. Truly a pleasure.

Eric Lotke: Thank you!

Lotke headshot.JPGBio: Eric Lotke is an author, activist and scholar. His early work like The Real War on Crime  was groundbreaking on criminal justice policy. His original research on “Prisoners of the Census”  has led to new law in four states so far. His lawsuit over the exploitative price of phone calls from prison led to new rules by the FCC. Lotke’s new novel,Making Manna, is an uplifting tale of triumph over economic and criminal injustice.

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[Special thanks to PRbytheBook. Bread dough image retrieved from on 2.26.16. Coming of Age” books retrieved from on 2.26.16]